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Title
Iza's Ballad
Author
Magda Szabo, translated by George Szirtes
Genre
Fiction
Publisher
New York Review of Books
Pages
352

The most iconic characters in Western literature – beginning with Odysseus, through Hamlet and Don Quixote, to Anna Karenina, Captain Ahab, Sherlock Holmes, Ebenezer Scrooge and Emma Bovary, and into the previous century with Jay Gatsby, Holden Caulfield and Lolita (right up to, I don't know, Harry Potter?) – have one thing in common: They're not much like real people at all, but grotesque extrapolations of human traits. And their scope as archetypes extends well beyond subsequent fictional creations to codify the world. "Quixotic," after all, isn't just a literary term, but a good description for anyone behaving in a well-intentioned but clueless way.

What is it about caricature that's so affecting? "Every man's a chasm," Georg Buchner claims in Woyzeck. "It makes you dizzy when you look down in." Applied to the novel, that vertiginous effect is amplified by fiction's capacity to peer into a person's psyche – male or female, naturally – with such depth and acuity to at once render them larger than life and precisely distill their inner experience. This sort of psychological and emotional access is, short of clairvoyance, otherwise unimaginable with another person; even our loved ones we can only know so well, but Jane Eyre tells us everything.

With this metric in mind, the greatest character I've encountered in a recent novel is without doubt Emerence in Magda Szabo's The Door. First published in Hungarian in 1987, Len Rix's 1995 translation for Vintage UK was re-released by the NYRB in 2015 to stateside acclaim. Emerence, the narrator's housekeeper, is brilliantly wrought in all her eccentricities and contradictions: proud, stubborn, kind, wounded, fearsome and, ultimately, tragic. The portrait is so compelling and so vivid that there were times when I would look up from the book expecting to find her in the room with me.

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Iza's Ballad, originally published 24 years before The Door, shares many of that later novel's themes: servitude, co-dependence, power, disgrace. Again, the story revolves around the generational divide between two women, Iza, a physician, and her mother, Ettie, and again Szabo mostly turns her remarkable powers of observation, insight and pathos on the senior of the two. Set in Hungary just after the Second World War, the book (which is enjoying a moment in the spotlight thanks to the NYRB, although a UK edition has been available to Canadian readers since 2014) uses this dynamic to explore the shift between old and new, per the rapid march into communism that consumed Eastern Europe through the middle of the 20th century.

The tone is anti-nostalgic, as the novel lurches alongside civilization into a bright and hopeful future. Of course, we as readers know how this will play out, and the story here is a familiar one. So when the family patriarch dies and Iza, forever the pragmatist, suggests that her mother abandon her country home – and past, and dog – to join her in the modernizing city, there's painful irony to Ettie's optimism: "What delight it must be to move to Budapest, to leave sad memories behind and to enjoy a happy old age in new circumstances … Iza would look after her, she'd have nothing to worry about for the rest of her life."

Almost immediately upon relocating, Ettie – or, as she becomes known as the novel progresses, simply "the old woman" – turns adrift, her identity stripped from her, overwhelmed by a rapidly changing society she doesn't understand. Out of step with the times, she clings to tradition, insisting on burning paraffin rather than using the coffee maker and distrusting the refrigerator for its lack of ice. When she is gifted a bird, Ettie sets it free – yet, with nowhere else to go, it roosts just beyond her windowsill: "It was like someone who had lost not only his home but all hope," she thinks, incisively enough, "who had given himself over to fate."

Meanwhile, Iza is a picture of ease and sophistication, completely at home in this brave new world: "How clever she was," Ettie notes, "how charming, how polite, how well she knew what to say, when and to whom." The ways in which Szabo explores the tension between mother and daughter will resonate with anyone who has suffered that terrible cycle of disproportionate, lunatic frustration with their parents, which, when expressed, instantly slithers into guilt and shame.

And this might be where Iza's Ballad and The Door deviate. The Door was literally about unlocking the portal to another person's hidden world, and as such the narrator's personality was obscured by the massive shadow that Emerence casts over the book. But Iza's Ballad relies on contrasts; Ettie exists fundamentally in relation, and opposition, to her daughter, not as a mystery to be plumbed and solved. Iza's Ballad also resists a fixed perspective, sometimes dancing between characters' points of view in the same scene, the result of which is a more diffuse focus than Szabo's singular, exacting portrayal of Emerence.

As such, I don't foresee "ettian" entering our everyday lexicon – though "emerential" has a certain ring to it – as Ettie doesn't display that seemingly grandiose quality required for canonization. This is not to say that Iza's Ballad isn't full of finely drawn characters, or that the book itself isn't compelling, affecting and a fascinating parable of mid-20th century progress. But it is more of a study of the spaces between people, and what those represent, than an examination of one person, herself, alone.

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